Court ruling leaves key oil fields to Sudanese government

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague has readjusted the borders of Sudan’s oil-rich Abyei region, effectively awarding control of key oil facilities in the area to the Khartoum-based northern government.

Eric Watkins
OGJ Oil Diplomacy Editor

LOS ANGELES, July 22 -- The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague has readjusted the borders of Sudan’s oil-rich Abyei region, effectively awarding control of key oil facilities in the area to the Khartoum-based northern government.

The oil fields had been appended to the Abyei region in 2005, after a peace agreement signed between the the northern government and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement—a decision that Khartoum disputed.

In 2008, the two parties decided to refer the matter to the PCA after violent clashes in the region left 100 dead, with thousands of others forced to flee the fighting.

Altogether, the PCA’s ruling reduced the land mass of the Abyei region by 8,099 sq km by redrawing its northern, eastern, and western borders, while leaving the southern border unchanged.

As a result of the PCA ruling, the Khartoum government was able to boast of significant gains to the north, west, and east of the town of Abyei, particularly in terms of control of oil fields.

"We have made a very important gain in this award," said Dirdeiry Mohamed Ahmed, the Sudanese government representative at the tribunal, adding, "This territory includes the disputed oil fields."

In particular, Abyei's new eastern border means that Khartoum will be able to keep the key Heglig and Bamboo oil fields, part of a block operated by the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Co., a consortium led by China National Petroleum Corp.

The court ruling effectively awarded the Diffra oil field Abyei, but its production is thought to be falling.

Despite the loss of the key oil-producing areas, leaders of the SPLM, which heads the autonomous regional government in the south, agreed to abide by the court ruling.

SPLM representative Riek Machar said, "We want peace. We think this decision is going to consolidate the peace. We came to see justice and it's a decision we will respect."

Independent observers said there is still potential for long-term problems, in particular whether SPLM supporters will accept the loss of Heglig, Bamboo, and other oil fields, once the implications of the ruling have been assessed.

The most immediate effect will be loss of revenues, both to the government of Southern Sudan and to local communities, who were promised a proportion of Abyei's oil revenues under earlier interim agreements.

Under a peace deal agreed between the north and south in 2005, Abyei will hold a referendum in 2011 on whether to retain special status within north Sudan, or join the south, where a simultaneous vote will be held on independence.

But the oil fields will remain part of northern Sudan, according to this week’s ruling by the PCA, however the people of Abyei vote in the forthcoming referenda.

Contact Eric Watkins at hippalus@yahoo.com.

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